Performance reviews are broken. Some companies have decided to do away with reviews entirely; after some experimentation, others have come to the conclusion that they are still needed. Reviews run in parallel with continuous feedback, so it’s easy to understand why the two might be perceived as interchangeable (and indeed a few companies do thrive on just continuous feedback).
"Reviews are at their prime when complimented by a healthy feedback culture."
However, reviews have some unique advantages. Whereas continuous feedback consists of regular check-ins designed to take things week by week, reviews provide an opportunity to go deeper into the evaluative process. Because they’re less frequent, they offer a little more breathing space for employees to really reflect on their work. Both employee and manager can take a look at the bigger picture and formulate a structured understanding of the employee’s progress within the company. Finally, reviews are a good way of discovering company trends of overall performance and competencies.
But how do you conduct a performance review that doesn’t leave employees and managers feeling frustrated, confused and overwhelmed?
1. Get your timing right
Performance reviews are not the same thing as continuous feedback, and there’s no need to have them too frequently. However, going the other way and conducting reviews once a year makes things difficult for all participants because there’s just far too much ground to cover. The most effective review cycles occur once every six months or every quarter: these timeframes carve up the year into more manageable segments and create a sense of progression between reviews.
2. Look forward
When people think of reviews, they often think of an evaluation that is 100% retrospective - a commentary on work that’s been done, and not of work that employees are doing or going to do. The truth is, good reviews use observations about the past to get an understanding of the present and create a plan for the future. Like feedback, reviews aren’t just about giving someone a scorecard for their efforts. They are meant to provide clarity and meaning to both employee and manager, so it becomes easier to go forward.
3. Understand the opportunity
Imagine you’re taking a long road trip. Occasionally you’ll pull up at a petrol station to fill up on gas and check where you are on your route. Sometimes you’ll realize there could be a better route to take; other times you might have a problem with your car that needs to be addressed. It doesn’t matter which car you drive: only where you are. Reviews are the same: they’re not about putting a number on people, but assessing where they are in relation to company goals and values, and how they can best move forward.
4. Focus on development, not compensation
Reviews are often associated with salary hikes and promotions, but it’s unwise to talk about money in a general performance review. Why? Well, it becomes quite hard for employees to take in constructive information if they have dollar signs flashing in their minds. It’s not that salaries can never be discussed - just separate money talks from performance reviews so that it’s clear what the main purpose of each meeting is.
Unless talking specifically about money, reviews should be about development. Give constructive advice if it’s needed and recognition where it’s due.
5. Be clear
Make sure the employees know in advance what the purpose of the review is, otherwise they’ll come to the meeting with all kinds of fears, anxieties and expectations. This makes the review process more productive, too. Be clear about the questions that are going to be asked, and what competencies are being evaluated - not only does this help the employee prepare for the review and outline their personal goals ahead of time, but it forces the reviewer to formulate unbiased, objective questions beforehand.
In addition to making your intentions clear, use automation to make the process as streamlined as possible. With the help of a feedback tool, reviews will become much less chaotic and overwhelming.
6. Be sympathetic
Even at the best of times reviews can be hard. Humans are biologically programmed to treat constructive feedback as a kind of threat, so it’s no wonder people get so tense about them. With this in mind, create a review model where employees can process new information in their own time. Give them their review one or two days before the review talk so they can experience their initial reactions in private. This will make the actual review talk more calm and collected.
Get employees onside with the review process. When it comes to the review talk, sitting next to rather than across from the reviewee creates a sense of collaboration rather than criticism or judgement. And if you ask employees how they experienced the review, either in person or via survey, you can tweak the process to be as pain-free as possible.
7. Get multiple perspectives
Multiple reviews are astoundingly effective at transforming traditional review processes. Unlike a manager simply reviewing their direct reports, different perspectives help to create a fairer, more accurate review cycle. As part of this you might include:
A two-way feedback relationship between managers and employee helps to normalize the review process and make it feel fair, as well as gleaning important data about your team leaders.
Peer reviews yield more comprehensive data because the information comes from multiple sources; they can also be more accurate in cases where employees spend far more time with their peers than with their managers.
In this case, employees can better understand their strengths by matching up their self-perspective with external perspectives. Self-reviews also create a sense of agency in the person being reviewed, as well as giving them the opportunity to remember their achievements and contributions before the review talks.
At the beginning of this blog post we said that reviews run parallel to continuous feedback - but there’s more. Reviews are at their prime when complimented by a healthy feedback culture. Feedback and surveys are needed to fill in all that time between reviews, when smaller issues need to be resolved and pieces of thanks and praise can be given; 1:1 meetings and OKRs help to manage employee goals on an ongoing basis.
“The solution here is not to throw out performance reviews, but to build a culture that recognizes and rewards growth.”
– Lori Goler, Head of People at Facebook
As well as supporting a dialogue between learners and teachers, these practices can also remedy common review issues like recency bias and delayed or unclear feedback. And with the help of a feedback tool, managers can make notes about employees’ progress so that when the review period comes around it’s easy to access the data. In this way, reviews become an elegant addition to your feedback toolkit, enhancing rather than hindering your company’s progress.